The Saved and the Spooked

  • Holly Faith Nelson, Lynn R. Szabo and Jens Zimmerman
    Through a Glass Darkly: Suffering, the Sacred and the Sublime in Literature and Theory. Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Reviewed by Timothy E. Dugdale

“I want more life, fucker.” In a film with many quotable lines, this one from Blade Runner takes the cake. An alpha male replicant has stolen into the baronial penthouse of a genetic engineering magnate. Time is of the essence because the replica’s expiration date is nigh. But the father has no answer for the son, and the son has his revenge.

Is this not the secret raging fantasy of billions of people, to confront God on his home turf and demand extra innings? Why rage against the dying of the light if you could just remove the hand on the dimmer? Death is a vexing inevitability that produces that most profound sense of fear and loathing, the sublime. In this compelling new collection of essays, the editors explore how many different writers over the ages have sought to comprehend and render the sublime in the realms of the sacred and the profane. How can we love a God that creates us only to put us to death? Is suffering a magic vehicle of transcendence in both life and death. Or is suffering a mental swindle that turns life into a miserable gamble of deferred gratification and eating shit just to earn potential heavenly relief and reward?

No figure in Western civilization exemplifies the fetish of suffering more than Jesus Christ. For Christians to achieve transcendence, they must suffer like their saviour and live with it, quietly. Daniel Doerksen contends that George Herbert’s The Temple is, in fact, a Calvinist ode to adversity, that the Christian “cannot like the Stoics seek indifference to it, but must ‘feel it as a man.’” Herbert, like Calvin, revels in the double bind that believers must embrace—God is good but he likes to test, and you have to suffer without asking God why you can’t suffer a little less. Doerksen suggests that Herbert’s poetic genius lies in his ability to bring to life the sights and sounds of humans as they endure affliction without making a spectacle of themselves.

In an essay on Alice Munro, John Van Rhys quotes the author from an interview: “I don’t see life very much in terms of progress. I don’t feel at all pessimistic. I rather like the idea that we go on and we don’t know what’s happening and we don’t know what we’ll find. We think we’ve got things figured out and then they turn around on us.” Rhys, through close textual reading of early Munro short stories, suggests that Munro sees humans alienated from nature because they are unable to understand nature or come to terms with their own inadequacies in nature. They can’t hack the surprises. Rhys goes on to argue Munro’s later short stories have become not so short because “of Munro’s exploring in greater complexity and depth the mysteries and violence, vitality and the human spirit.”
A few years ago, standing on a Metro platform in Washington, DC, I overheard a well-dressed Rasta tell his equally elegant partner, “I’m sick of being defined by trauma.” In her introduction, Holly Faith Nelson points out that “theologies of suffering have been viewed by many trauma theorists not as a means of healing victims but rather as a way (to our peril) of averting our eyes from the brutal physical realities of the human condition.”

Steve Vine addresses this very notion in his essay on Toni Morrison’s Beloved. He argues that the “national amnesia of slavery is not just a cultural repression, but a historical obliteration, too; for a key dimension of the sublime in Morrison’s text is the silence or absence that characterizes the very object that it takes as its focus of representation.” Just as Herbert brought to life the interior world of suffering of Christians, Vine suggests that Morrison attempts to “rip the veil” that is drawn over the unspeakable thoughts, unspoken.” But unlike Herbert’s quest to bring suffering to life without questioning the celestial source of that suffering, Morrison refuses suffering outright in the material world. She has Sethe murder Beloved to save her from a life of slavery and its attendant trauma. “By unplugging Beloved in this way from the slave system,” writes Vine, “Sethe flouts slavocracy’s literal and symbolic economy: the regime that declares the slave child to be the property of the slaveholder, not the child of its mother.”

Ultimately, literature may provide a pathway to that most treasured of spiritual states: grace. Thinking about suffering and trauma through the choice words of choice authors, the reader can discover that life is a hell of a ride and that ride is heaven enough.

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